Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Review of Religulous...or Why Bill Maher is an Evangelist for Fundamentalist Agnosticism

I know that Bill Maher is not a favorite figure of the evangelical world. As the host of Politically Incorrect from 1993 to 2002, and Real Time with Bill Maher from 2003 to the present, he has been a flash-point for controversy. Maher has a gift for satire and sociopolitical commentary and the focus of his criticism typically includes right wing politics, political correctness, mass media, and religions of all kinds. He supports the legalization of cannabis and gay marriage and serves on the board of PETA. He is also an outspoken critic of religion and is an advisory board member of Sam Harris' The Reason Project, along with notable atheist Richard Dawkins.

Ronnie and I went to see his new film Religulous last night because we felt it was important to hear what this well-known social commentator and comedian is saying to the world. The basics about the movie are as follows: Religulous was released October 3; it has a run time of 101 minutes; and it is rated R by the MPAA. The R rating is for some salty language (although, I must say, I've heard much worse), violent images (mostly from news broadcasts), some crude sexual references, and a brief shot of female nudity.

Let's start with the strengths of the movie, shall we? Religulous definitely lives up to its title. Maher manages to find some of the more ridiculous (or ridiculous sounding) representatives of a variety of religions. Personally, however, I found the people he interviewed about Christianity the most laughable and cringe-worthy. For the most part, these "interviews" were entertaining, but I probably cringed and said "Oh no," as many times as I laughed out loud. The funnier moments in the film were when the film editors spliced humorous B-movie clips in the middle of conversations and/or monologues.

For the most part, Maher focuses his criticism on the "Big 3," Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, with occasional interviews with cult leaders and former cult members. The interesting thing is that I found myself agreeing with quite a lot of Maher's more substantive criticisms of religion--even his criticisms of Christianity and Christians. I think history and experience reveal that religion is dangerous. And, like pastor and theologian Greg Boyd, whose review of the movie you can read here, I think its important that Christians recognize this truth. How easily we forget that it was the religious folks (not the "heathen") that crucified Jesus. And, how easily we forget our capability to allow religion to lead to violence and destruction. In this way, I think Maher is justified in pointing out the danger of religion.

Even though Maher's primary motivation is certainly not to offer "food for thought" to Christians (more on his real motivation below), I think thoughtful people will find many significant matters to ponder after viewing Religulous. I'll tease out just a few of them here. First, Maher's primary criticism of religious people is the matter of certainty. He argues that certainty is arrogant, while doubt is humble. When speaking to a group of truckers at their "Trucker Chapel," Maher pounds the pulpit and says, "I preach the Gospel of 'I don't know.'" I think its worth considering whether one can have faith without certainty and what is the role of doubt in the life of a person of faith. And, I think we could talk for a long time about Maher's claim that religion "makes a virtue out of not thinking."

Second, Maher spends a good bit of time addressing the creationist movement within American evangelicalism. Beyond the matter of whether Christians can or should believe in evolution, I think there is a larger question to be considered: What is the relationship between the Bible and science? This is something about which many Christians haven't thought deeply or carefully. My questions about this topic crystallized for me when Maher interviews a Vatican astronomer, who explains that the Bible was written somewhere between 2,000 BC and 100 AD, but the age of science in the Western world didn't dawn until the 1800s. For this reason, the Vatican official argues, the Bible and science cannot have anything in common. Is this the case? If not, why not? If so, what does this mean?

Third, towards the end of the film, Maher focuses on the apocalyptic elements of all of the major religions, but especially Christianity. He does filming in the Valley of Megiddo, stating something to the effect of, "This the place where many Christians believe the end of the world will take place." Then, as his condemnation of apocalypticism heats up, verses from the Book of Revelation are flashed on the screen, over a constant barrage of footage showing nuclear bombs, mass death, and destruction. Yes, its a cheap attempt to scare people but, it also raises a question.

What are the social and political implications of holding to the traditional dispensational view of the End Times? Does the belief in a rapture of the church and the destruction of the world at Armageddon lead to an irresponsible and "devil may care" attitude toward worldwide peacemaking and care for the environment? When dispensational preachers teach that Israel must bomb Iran in order to initiate the beginning of the End, will that not impact the way evangelical Christians view their responsibility to pursue peace with all men? I think there is an important issue. And, to "show my cards" a little bit, this is one of the practical reasons (among many biblical and theological reasons) that I have rejected the "Left Behind" view of eschatology.

Even though I found much to ponder and learn from in Religulous, I think there was much lacking, as well. I could address the details of Maher's arguments against Christianity, but I'll let Boyd take care of that for you. What follows are my general criticisms of the film. First, Maher doesn't make a distinction between religion and faith. This is a curious thing, because there are times when Maher distinguishes between the tenets of the historical Jesus and the many dogmas, traditions, and rituals added to the original message. In my personal experience and expression of Christianity, I seek not to teach religion, but to point to a person and a faith that grows from an encounter with that person. Maybe I'm deluding myself, but I see a major difference between that and the religion Maher attacks.

Of course, because Maher has the outcome "rigged"--he is making a comedy about ridiculous religion, after all--he doesn't address the best proponents of any religion. Frankly, watching many of his interviews is a bit like watching someone shoot fish in a barrel. This makes for good laughs, of course, but not for good debate. And, I can't help but wonder what he would have to say if Christians made a movie about agnosticism and/or atheism that portrayed the worst spokespersons of those viewpoints in the same manner. I have a feeling he'd be more than a little miffed.

Despite Maher's assertion that his primary problem is with certainty--more specifically, people who claim to be certain of their religious beliefs--Maher seems to miss the fact that he is himself the most certain person in the film. He is certain of the fact that no one should be certain of anything. And, he is certain of the fact that if you are certain of religious truths, you are suffering from, in his words, "a neurological disorder."

In this way, Maher cannot avoid making himself the arbiter of right and wrong, truth and lies. Although he tells creationist Ken Ham that he doesn't think he is God, in a sense, Maher becomes his own god, which is the only real position you can take when you do not acknowledge another authority apart from your own intellect. That may be a conscious decision on Maher's part. I don't know. Unfortunately, Maher doesn't feel the need to clarify the implications of this perspective in this film.

Also, I think that Maher drastically overestimates the goodness of human nature and the human intellect. At the end of the film, Maher says, "Religion must die for humankind to live." He believes that religion is holding humanity back from developing into the reasonable, peaceable people we should be. It doesn't hurt his claim, of course, that a majority of wars throughout human history have had something to do with religion, and many of them overtly so. But, I think it is naive in the extreme for Maher to suggest that without religion the world would become a peaceful, reasonable place. Puh-lease.

There are plenty of reasonable, rational reasons why we should bomb the heck out of "rogue nations" that cause us major problems and don't like us very much. There are plenty of reasonable, rational reasons why we should kill the "weak" members of society. There are plenty of reasonable, rational reasons why we should do lots of terrible things to fellow human beings, for our personal benefit or the benefit of society as a whole. Sorry, Bill. Rationalism and godlessness does not necessarily lead to peace, love, and happiness. Countless atheistic regimes have enacted violence and destruction in the world, completely devoid of any religious motivation. In the end, every human is capable of tremendous evil. The issue is not the human intellect. The issue is the human heart.

Finally, I found it the ultimate irony that even as Maher lambasts religious folks for their irrepressible desire to convert nonbelievers and "indoctrinate" converts, Maher closes Religulous with a clear evangelistic appeal. Just like your cheesiest "10 Minutes in Hell," evangelistic video, which uses the specter of burning brimstone to scare the unbeliever into "accepting Christ," Maher plays apocalyptic images over the screen for a full five minutes, making his appeal for the audience to repent of the destructive forces of religion and join him on the side of doubt, reason, and peace. Well done, Bill. I think you've done the "Turn or Burn" street preachers proud.

Bill Maher's Religulous won't win any Oscars and it won't be a bestselling DVD. But, it is entertaining and, ultimately, Maher raises some good questions for thinking religious folks. Take a peek, if you want. Avoid it, if you don't. Either way, Bill Maher, is an intelligent man with a increasingly popular view of religion. (You'll find out in the movie the "non-religious" make up a 18% minority in the US, more than African-Americans and Asians.) Christians need to know what they're saying and what are the weaknesses in their argument. In the end, though, I found nothing in the film to shake persons of thoughtful and, yes, reasonable, faith.


UnderMidnight said...

Fundamentalism. Ewy.
Both sides glory in their ignorance.

Part of the problem is that, by and large, Christian thinking still remains in the pre-modern era, calling this adhering to lunacy "faith." Attacking the many evidences of this irresistible.

Crap. I gotta run to work.

UnderMidnight said...

as if I could actually add anything to your observations anyway. I have Dawkins book "God Delusion" but haven't read it yet.

This new wave of fundamental atheism is entertaining. What a way to waste a brilliant mind than to spend its energy refuting idiocy.

My favorite atheist was Carl Sagan. He was the true giant. The rest of these wannabes can only crowd around his kneecaps.

That man changed my life and turned me onto learning in a way school never could have hoped.

I highly highly recommend acquiring his series "Cosmos."
What a beautiful mind that man had.

ddflowers said...

Great review! I really have to use my Jesus powers to love Bill. No, seriously... good review... much to think about.